April 22, 2014


From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all.  Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Lim and Rakes make wide-ranging connections, from the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch (Jaguar, 1954/1967) to the SEL (which receives its own sidebar). Rouch practiced what he called “ethno-fiction”, and with Jaguar, he took an anthropological film he had shot in 1954 in Niger, and asked its subjects to dub a commentary over it thirteen years later, where they try to recall their on-screen conversations and get sidetracked with jokes and digressions. The SEL similarly foregrounds the apparatus of filmmaking, as in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (now in theaters via Cinema Guild), which takes a series of 16mm portraits of worshippers and tourists as they ride a cable car up the mountains to a temple in Nepal. Each rides runs the length of a roll of film, and contain a parade of micro-dramas, from the fate of a sacrificial chicken to that of a melting ice cream cone. The SEL was founded in 2006 to revive a Flaherty spirit in documentary, that “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”, as they say on their site. Spray is also represented by her 2009 ethnographic hangout film, As Long as There’s Breath (2009). It is the third in a series of videos she made of a Nepali family, and she has achieved such a laid back rapport it has the deadpan humor and tempo of a Jim Jarmusch movie. It’s a series of conversation sketches about the parents’ depression over their empty nest (the kids have all moved out), and the village women’s state of sexual satisfaction (low). Spray shoots them in silhouette against the mountainside, an image of aestheticized distance. But these ladies are no exotic other, and proceed to assert their agency by debating the relative merits of wooden and rubber dildos.


They have adapted to performing to Spray’s camera and turned into delicate and often hilarious performers. Three other documentaries in the series take performance as their theme: Davi Pretto’s Castanha, the Closing Night film Actress (2014). João Carlos Castanha is an aging actor in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He takes gigs all over town, from bit parts in TV dramas to a drag queen MC at the local gay bar. He’s seemingly born to entertain, though he’s never ascended past the local scene. Pretto emphasizes the small spaces of his dressing rooms, smoke filled squares that are not reminders of failure, exactly, but of a dulling inertia. Castanha lives with and cares for his mother, who spends her time swearing at the condo manager at coddling her grandson Marcelo, a drug addict. The film sways between Castanha’s endless pre-show rituals, the layers of makeup and small talk with other actors, with the rush of performance, his energy refracted in the disco ball light. Pretto takes advantage of Castanha’s performativity by inventing melodramatic scenarios to graft onto his life, turning Marcelo’s story into one of violence and mystery, allowing Castanha to pose as a gangster. In an interview with Ela Bittencourt in Guernica Mag, Pretto states his approach to capturing reality:

Our lives are marvelous constructs, caught between the real and fiction. We are always inventing fictions. We create our own roles and stories that we then interpret to our friends and colleagues. And I’m not the one who came up with this idea; it’s been around for a long time. In Jung, for example. But in the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.


Brandy Burre’s life is another marvelous construct. The subject of Robert Greene’s Actress secured a recurring part on The Wire before giving up acting to raise her children. She moved to Beacon with her boyfriend, and devoted her life to her family. As Greene picks up her story, the relationship is falling apart, and Burre is eager to return to the stage or the screen. Where Castanha is quiet and reflective, Burre is open and in the moment, talking herself through her insecurities and anxieties. It is rare for a documentary, or any film for that matter, to record so closely the everyday life of a woman above the age of 25. The joys of motherhood are all mashed together with career regrets and the mounting difficulty of a woman of her thirtysomething age to make a comeback in show business. She remembers how she was twenty-seven on the set of The Wire, while all the men were in their late thirties. She is not allowed to age gracefully, or balance her life and her work. The institutions of motherhood and show business both seem to conspire against her. Greene is well aware that Brandy is a star, and lights her like one, interrupting the handheld camera of daily life with vignettes of delicate soft focus close-ups, an upstate New York Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Brandy is stumbling her way through a life she is trying to get out of, with empathy and fragility, turning herself into her own crowning performance.


Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns mourns one of Africa’s greatest performances, and charts an alternate history of its actor. Diop films Magaye Niang as he watches himself in a public screening of Touki Bouki (1973) in Senegal. A classic of the African cinema, it was about two Senegalese grifters who try to con their way out of Africa on a ship to France. It was directed by Mati Diop’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety. Niang is older now, introduced rustling cattle with a sewn on star on his shirt, the High Noon theme song on the soundtrack. He is a cowboy, a relic. When he tells kids at the screening that he is the actor in the movie, they don’t believe him, and say he must be dreaming. In this film Diop envisions another life for Niang, one in which he adopts the life of his Touki Bouki character and flees Senegal. The film becomes the dream the children accused Niang of living in, where the border between film and life, and life and dream, disappears as a fade to black.


Philipp Hartmann would admit he’s no great actor, but he’s an engagingly neurotic guide to the digressive essay film Time Goes By Like a Roaring Lion. The title is an odd phrase by Hartmann’s grandmother, conveying the violence and speed of time. Hartmann objects to getting old, and the more time passes the more he gets sucked into the past, like a time traveler. His triggers are not as poetic as Proust’s madeleine – he is set off by banal objects like a soccer magazine or a matchbook, sparking reminiscences on players’ birthdays and lovers’ faces. He uses his revulsion at his incipient death to hopscotch from the atomic clock in Braunschweig to a train graveyard in the Andes, on which an impermanent graffiti is scrawled, “The only thing that happens here is time.” When Hartmann returns to the train, the graffiti has been washed away by the rain. Through bull sessions with his friends, about Einstein’s Twin Paradox and their eternal adolescence, he looks for ways to outrun the clock, but he repeatedly encounters those driven mad by chronophobia:”Time would kill him at some point if he wasn’t faster.”

The films that make up “Art of the Real” supply an eclectic alternate history to non-fiction filmmaking, one that takes advantage of the full expressive potential of the medium. This week there is also a program of avant-garde work, including A New Product, in which Harun Farocki turns a corporate meeting on ideal workspaces into an absurdist essay on the impenetrability of neoliberal market-speak. Or if you’re in a more observational mode you can still catch  Castanha and Actress (sold out, but you can always go standby). Instead of flicking on the latest “issue” documentary on Netflix, head to Lincoln Center and see what artists are moving the form ahead by going backward – to Flaherty and beyond.


March 2, 2010


“He [D.W. Griffith] missed a certain beauty he thought had disappeared from film, from the way people saw life — ‘the beauty of the moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees. That they have forgotten entirely. . . We have lost beauty.’ On that note, Griffith fell silent.” -Richard Schickel, D.W. GRIFFITH: AN AMERICAN LIFE

Griffith’s deathbed lament has turned into something of a mission statement for a disparate group of filmmakers on the experimental side of documentary practice,  who combine anthropological impulses (recording “the wind in the trees”) with a rigorously constructed visual formalism (regaining its “beauty”), blurring the boundary between fiction and non. The great French avant-gardist Jean-Marie Straub is a main influence, and seems to have popularized the quote, as recounted by director John Gianvito and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Griffith’s words have exerted almost as much influence as Straub and late partner Daniele Huillet’s austere long-take style. I’ve never found the original 1947 interview from which Griffith’s words were taken, so any help on this front would be much obliged.

I was led to three of these hybrid films: Sweetgrass (which I discussed here), The Anchorage, and Agrarian Utopia, by Robert Koehler in his Cinema Scope essay, “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias“.  Here he introduces his concept of a “cinema of in-between-ness”, which is not a movement as much as a tendency, where “a zone of a cinema free of, or perhaps more precisely in between, hardened fact and invented fiction permits all manner of wild possibilities.” Most of these possibilites, he finds, are focused on “subjects about humans working on the surface of the earth.”

The remarkable thing about this trio of films (set in the U.S., Sweden, and Thailand, respectively), is how similar they are in content, focusing as they do on work, and obsolescent work at that. Sweetgrass follows the last sheepherders through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana. The Anchorage depicts the self-sufficient life of a mother on the Stockholm Archipelago. Agrarian Utopia presents the life of itinerant farmers in northern Thailand using pre-Industrial Revolution equipment. All three are aesthetically beautiful in differing ways, and use invented scenarios in varying degrees.

The directors of The Anchorage, C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, paraphrase Griffith’s quote in the promotional material for their film, and perhaps hew closest to its intent.  A hypnotic tour through the Stockholm Archipelago led by Edström’s mother, Ulla, it sets up the slenderest of plots while building a world of exquisite tactility (one caveat: I was only able to watch the film on a lo-res screener. And if any movie demands to be seen in the inky dark of a theater, it is this one. So I’m sure I’m missing some visual grace notes). The camera records Ulla’s routines, her morning swims, afternoon walks, and the wood-cutting and fish-gutting necessities of her existence. It is broken up by a few intrusions. The first is a loving visit from her daughter, Elin, who with her boyfriend Marcus light up her modest cabin with youth. The second is the ominous appearance of a deer hunter, whose presence makes Ulla visibly uneasy, and minute changes in her routines start to occur.

This plot is a construction (Elin, Marcus and the hunter are all played by actors), but Ulla plays herself, and her real home is the set. Then there is the attention the film pays to the light, shadow, and movement of the island, which turns sections of it into a nature documentary. The opening shot exemplifies this hyper-attentiveness. It starts in complete darkness, to a soundtrack of crunchy footfalls and plaintive birdcalls, until patches of moonlight leak through in splotches at the top of the frame. Then a ghostly outline is edged in light until the full figure of Ulla in a rough terry-cloth robe determinedly walks to the water. This sequence lasts over 8 minutes, completely attuned to the “moving wind through the trees” and how Ulla blends in to its flow. The use of Super16mm film produces a rough-hewn graininess to the image, and the colors are pastels leached of vibrancy, anticipating the winter that Ulla is praying to arrive. It’s a workmanlike kind of beauty.

The emphasis is not on Ulla’s goal – getting to the water – but on her presence as a body, and the presence of the foliage around her. It requires a re-orientation as a viewer, away from character arcs and towards a multi-planar focus, where the background holds as much interest as the human moving at its center. This can be a difficult transition to make, but the rewards are stunning.

This is not to take away from the suggestive mystery of the narrative, though, which produces a insinuating sense of unease through a voice-over and the spectre of the yellow-warning suit of a hunter. In her voice-over, Ulla notes the song of the larks, who stay around later into fall every year. Straight away this note introduces something “off” with her surroundings, which will build through her various chores and rests, until the wearing of a bathing-suit becomes indicative of an massive psychological shift, where solitude ineffably shifts into loneliness. It’s a remarkable moment in a film loaded with them.

Where The Anchorage maintains a constant distance from Ulla, Agrarian Utopia uses a more dialectic approach, shifting back and forth from long shots of workers arranged against the ground and sky, the romantic-heroic view of farming, to the close-ups and shot-countershots of the off-hours, when the anxiety of debt and the  theater of Thai political life dominates conversations. The story concerns Duen and Nuek, two itinerant farmers and their families, trying to make a buck as the bank forecloses on every scrap of land they work on. Using archaic methods of farming, including Buffalo-motored plows, it’s a lament for the death of a working community, but unlike Sweetgrass, it’s completely invented – for this way of life is already extinct. Koehler reports that Director Uruphong Raksasad hired locals to play the part of the farmers, and rented the plot for a year from the government just for the shoot.

The son of farmers himself, Raksasad is reconstructing the final days of that working community, a passion play of bent backs, stupefyingly gorgeous landscapes, and past-due loan payments. As in Sweetgrass, Raksasang entwines the beauty of the land with the physical toll of labor and the brutal economic realities of local farming. It’s a constant push-pull of aesthetics and politics, of sunsets and bounced checks. What makes all of this sing is the facility of the performers, the beauty of the Thai landscape, and Raksasad’s sheer ambition – encapsulating the demise of local agriculture and the insanity of the political scene. The populist Thaksin Shinawatra, shrouded with allegations of corruption, was ousted by a military coup in 2006, and Shinawatra has been trying to win a proxy war for power ever since, briefly popping back up in 2008 when his former party won an election. He has since been convicted in absentia for “conflict of interest” and was sentenced to two years in jail.

He’s reportedly popular with the working class, but Raksasad draws a portrait of people sick of political manuevuring and loud empty gestures. He has one worker describe the scene by saying “the opposition and government are making a movie for us to watch.” It is a despairing political portrait that erupts with moments of sublime beauty. After a storm, a giddy hand-held camera races with the local children during a mud fight, careening along with them with joyful intensity, one of the most kinetically thrilling moments I’ve had in a cinema. But then Nuek trudges back to Bangkok, weaving through curse-wielding protestors and condescending party leaders, with the mud and sun and trudgery a distant memory. Now he’s got a factory job.


January 12, 2019


Early yesterday, news broke that Eric Rohmer passed away at the age of 89. Dave Kehr has a fine obituaryup at the NY Times, and I would recommend Michael J. Anderson’s essay on My Night at Maud’s and The Green Ray for an analysis of his styleThe Six Moral Tales will remain his legacy, but I found his swan song, The Romance of Astree and Celadonto be equally extraodinary. Suzi penned a lovely tribute to the recently deceased film critic Robin Wood yesterday, and who else but Eric Rohmer was the publisher of Wood’s first essay (on Psycho) for Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer’s influence on filmmaking and criticism is incalcuable, and his art will live on as long as we value film as an art form.

Now back to the regularly scheduled sheep programming…

The first quarter viewing calendar I posted last week is off to a rousing start. Sweetgrass opened in NYC after its local premiere at the New York Film Festival, and it’s an overpoweringly tactile experience. Cinema Guild is expanding it to ten more cities through the spring, so check the schedule….now. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash recorded 200 hours of footage of two Norwegian-American sheepherders as they led their flock through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. There are no interviews and the only explanatory text appears at the end of the film before the credits roll. It is a ravishing document of a dying tradition, and one that sets its boots deep in the sheep shit as well as in the rolling plains. This is no romantic gloss of the West, but an immersion in it. Castaing-Taylor and Barbach spent two years filming in and around Big Timber, Montana, which produced a series of short films, but the feature took eight years of editing (and double foot surgery for Lucien after lugging all his equipment over the mountains).

The duo are professors in Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography at Harvard, and their work has previously only been exhibited in art galleriesFrom Sweetgrass, it’s clear that they aim to straddle the boundary between social science and the arts, both documenting culture and reflecting upon it. There are some very artfully composed shots in Sweetgrass, of cowboys framed against the horizon and sheep inching down a mountain in extreme long-shot, that would seem to be outside of an anthropologist’s purview. In a great interview with Cinema Scope, Castaing-Taylor elaborates:

Ambiguity, or any kind of aesthetic opacity that isn’t readily translatable into the limpid clarity of expository prose, is somehow lacking for anthropologists, in their quest for “cultural meaning.”…I’m not desperate for Sweetgrass to be recuperated as a work of visual anthropology, but simply because it doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and because there aren’t that many words in it, doesn’t mean for me mean it isn’t a work of anthropology. It actually feels profoundly so to me, but maybe more a philosophical anthropology.

Castaing-Taylor is working against the grain of his profession to get at the poetry of his subjects’ existence along with the exterior that can be studied. The three subjects under their camera’s microscope here: John, an older, gentle herder; Pat, the hot-headed, younger herder; and a whole mess o’ sheep. Castaing-Taylor had placed between four and eight lavolier microphones on the men and the sheep at all times, and captured some extraordinary footage on his DV camera. Since this was filmed in 2001-2002, the image quality suffers. One often wishes he had the budget for a 35mm setup, but then the remarkable intimacy would be lost. The sound design is often stunning, however, edited by experimental musician Ernst Karel, it’s a cascade of sheep noises – their bleats, honks, skronks, and death rattles.

The only calming sounds in the film, other than the cricket-y silence of nightime, comes from John, a craggy-faced loner who speaks more to the sheep than to Pat. His voice is low and rumbly, and he rarely raises it above a whisper. In  a sequence of great beauty, he urges his “girls” not to stray out of line, repeating the phrase over and over until it sounds like a declaration of love. Filmed against the dusky night sky, it’s a scene of delicate romance.

Then there’s Pat, a younger guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sick of the sleepless nights, whining sheep, bum knee and an injured dog, he calls up his mom and unleashes a torrent of complaints, which he also unleashes on the herd (he calls them “bitches” as opposed to John’s “girls”). But it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to his plight – this is an incredibly exhausting, isolating, and dangerous job. With John only talking to his animals, Pat is alone, unstable, and completely lost.

The ultimate stars, though, aside from the vistas of Montana, are the sheep. The opening shot finds one of these incurious beasts raise its head and stare directly into the camera, daring us to imagine the world within its miniscule brain.